20 Oct 2020

High hopes homebound teachers will fill vacancies

9:16 am on 20 October 2020

Chief executives aren't leading the country's brain gain, new data about the occupations of returning New Zealanders shows.

21205086 - male teacher with his back to the camera writing a mathematical formula on the blackboard in a classroom while teaching a class

Around 800 teachers returned to New Zealand over a five-month period to August. File photo Photo: 123RF

Airport arrival cards showed teachers topped the list of 115 occupations, followed by engineering professionals in the five months from April.

That's good news for the education sector, which hopes a long-running teacher shortage is finally over.

High school science teacher Simon Grimmer is about to be counted among the growing number of returning New Zealanders in his profession - he is home for good in December after teaching abroad for 13 years.

Speaking from his home in northern Thailand, Grimmer said the decision to return with his wife and two sons was not made lightly.

"The long term economic outlook in northern Thailand isn't great, coronavirus isn't going anywhere in a hurry. It's very likely to re-emerge in Asia and particularly in Thailand," Grimmer said.

"What's drawing us back is aging parents and the need to establish an identity in my two sons. I'd like them to establish themselves as New Zealanders, they've never lived in New Zealand."

And it will be a proper homecoming - Grimmer is returning to teach science at the high school he attended as a teenager - Mahurangi College in Warkworth.

But leaving behind a comfortable salary that allows his family to take holidays and save on a single income will be bittersweet.

"We're very aware that the cost of living in the area that we'll be living and renting, we'll be struggling to make ends meet on a single salary. We do have the intention of having two salaries to support our family," he said.

"It may be that our experiment with living in New Zealand doesn't work out and we do need to return abroad for financial reasons but we wouldn't be doing that in a rush. It would be a five to 10 year thought process."

Of the 41,800 people entering the country between April and the end of August, more than over half - 27,351 - were returning Kiwis using a New Zealand passport.

Nearly two-thirds stated their occupation, showing the overall trends.

Teachers topped the list at 800, followed by engineering professionals.

Grimmer said he knew of at least one other teacher who has just returned to New Zealand.

"With the coronavirus New Zealand is increasingly becoming a bastion of safety, it's a safe haven and people are hopeful to return there. Perhaps the proportion of New Zealanders in the international school world is quite high too."

He doubted whether those returning would help to prop up the economy.

The occupation data also showed almost 100 more labourers than chief executives returned.

Stats NZ senior demographer Kim Dunstan said this is the first time they have collated occupation information of those entering the country - a more manageable task with smaller numbers crossing the border.

"It's interesting to see that occupations such as teachers are the largest single occupation group among returning New Zealand citizens but the occupations are spread across the whole spectrum."

Listen to or download The Detail's look at Kiwis coming home:

He said the Ministry of Education was among the government departments interested in returning New Zealanders' occupations, as it assesses the effects of Covid-19 on teacher supply.

"We know that there is some general interest in the composition of migrant arrivals since the border restrictions in March. A number of government agencies are looking to plan their labour needs over the coming months and years and are taking an interest in the occupational composition of migrant arrivals."

A ministry spokesperson said it expects more teachers will come home, while those in classrooms stayed on and qualified teachers returned to the profession.

Principal optimistic

In East Auckland's Bucklands Beach, Macleans College employs 172 teachers and its principal, Steven Hargreaves, is president of the Auckland Secondary Principals' Association.

He said returning New Zealand teachers will be a major source of professionals to fill vacancies for next year.

"We've lost the opportunity for recruiting teachers from overseas ... but we think that will be more than made up for by the New Zealanders who have fled back to New Zealand because of the Covid outbreak."

Hargreaves said principals were snapping up returnee teachers and there were also fewer vacancies.

"There's very little movement. Normally by this time of the year many teachers have come and told me they're going overseas or they're retiring. I've only had one of those conversations and for a school of this size that's most unusual. We're actually going to see teachers hunkering down and not moving because of the uncertainty that is out there."

Before the country's first case of Covid was reported, the Ministry said it needed 800 to 900 more teachers this year - roughly the same number who have already returned from overseas.

Although only a quarter of those returning said they planned to stay long term, closed borders and opportunities here may have changed their minds.

Grimmer and his family have booked managed isolation for the two weeks before Christmas and hope to complete it in time to spend the festive season with family.

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